Teaching economics

The demand side

The economics curriculum is evolving, but too slowly for some


“I DON'T care who writes a nation's laws, or crafts its advanced treatises, if I can write its economics textbooks.” So said Paul Samuelson, an American economist who more than achieved his aim by producing a bestseller. But debate swirls around the teaching of the dismal science—nowhere more so than in Britain.

“如果我能书写一本关于这个国家的经济学教材,我将不会关心谁来制定国家的法律或者发表先进的论述。”美国经济学家Paul Samuelson如是说,因为其畅销书,他早已达到了他的目标。但是围绕政治经济学教学的争论从未停止——以英国为最甚。

When the financial crisis hit in 2007-08, many economics students found themselves ill-equipped to think about what had gone wrong in the economy or how to fix it. Although researchers in top universities had studied financial panics, their work had not filtered down to the lecture theatre. Undergraduate courses focused on drier stuff, imparting a core of basic material that had not changed much for decades.


As a result, aspiring economists struggled to analyse burning issues such as credit crunches, bank bail-outs and quantitative easing. Employers complained that recruits were technically able but could not relate theory to the real world. Graduates'knowledge of economic history—crucial during the crisis, given its parallels with the Depression of the 1930s—was especially lacking.


Students became dissatisfied, too. Groups such as Rethinking Economics, a London-based network of student reformers, emerged to challenge the conventional wisdom of the classroom. At Manchester University, a student revolt led to plummeting satisfaction scores, driving the economics course down the league table.

经济学学生也对现状十分不满。学生组织纷纷出现,由伦敦学生改革派组成的 “反思经济学” 开始挑战课堂上传统的经济学思维。在曼彻斯特大学,学生反抗活动使得学生对经济学课程满意度下降,迫使该课程未能登上课程排行榜。

Teachers have now responded. University College London has introduced a new curriculum, the result of a project led by Professor Wendy Carlin. The old textbooks had things the wrong way round, Ms Carlin says. They taught concepts like supply and demand in an abstract way and then illustrated them with simple examples, such as the market for apples and oranges. By contrast, the new material challenges students to consider real-world topics from the outset. The section on labour supply begins with the history of real wage growth. The new course also acknowledges the limitations of basic models: the trade-off between efficiency and fairness is mentioned early, for instance. Students consider only the first in most introductory courses elsewhere.

老师们现在终于有所回应。由于Wendy Carlin教授主持的一个项目,英国伦敦大学学院引进了一个新的课程。Carlin女士说,以前的课本完全搞错了方向。它们用一些抽象的方式来教授供给和需求等经济学概念,然后用市场上的苹果和橘子这种简单的例子来告诉学生。而现在,新的教科书鼓励学生从现实生活中找到例子。书中关于劳动力供给的这一部分就是从实际工资增长的历史开始讲起的。这个新课程也认识到基本模型的局限性:比如,效率与公平的权衡在很早就告知了学生。而其他学校的学生在大部分入门课程上只注重前者。

Though Ms Carlin and her colleagues are overhauling teaching methods, the content of the course remains fairly mainstream. That irks those who think the financial crisis has posed a more fundamental challenge to the subject. Rethinking Economics wants curricula to cover heterodox schools of thought. For example, mainstream economic models rely heavily on the concept of equilibrium—a state in which nobody has an incentive to change their behaviour. Critics say this is never reached in the real world, so is a flawed starting point. They want more philosophical discussion about how best to approach economics, and point to Leeds, Greenwich and Kingston universities as models of how to do this.

尽管Carlin与其同事在改革教学方式,课程内容仍然跟随主流。这让那些认为金融危机给经济学带来了更为根本性挑战的人们十分恼火。“反思经济学”希望经济学课程能够涵盖非正统的思想流派。举个例子,主流经济学模型严重依赖均衡范式—一种人们没有动机去改变行为的状态。批评者说这在现实生活中根本不可能实现,所以经济学家一开始就错了。们想要在如何更好解决经济学问题上展开更多理论性的论述,并且点名利兹、 格林威治和金斯顿大学作为试点。

Two rather different questions have been posed. One asks whether courses do a good job of equipping students with the most important insights from mainstream academic research. The other asks whether young economists should learn more than just today's favoured approach. It would be odd if curricula departed radically from the academic consensus. But perhaps mainstream theory must catch up with its students.